The Pallister government has been steadfast in its austerity drive, a mandate on which it was elected. For many, it has been a welcome reprieve after years of burgeoning NDP deficits and a declining provincial credit rating (which fell again last summer, despite the premier’s best-made plans).
But has the Conservatives’ war on debt become a war on women?
Well, the statistics certainly suggest so.
The reconfiguration of the health-care system in Winnipeg has unfairly targeted women.
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority has been ordered by the province to find $83 million in savings in this year’s budget. Much has been written about the cuts to two programs aimed at assisting women: lactation consultants and the Mature Women’s Centre. In addition, the WRHA has closed ERs, moved on plans to privatize adult outpatient physiotherapy and occupational therapy, and close most QuickCare clinics.
The Mature Women’s Centre helped women as they dealt with gynecological issues and the transition through menopause. It saw up to 5,000 patients a year, and handled 3,000 phone calls annually. The lactation consultants operated out of the Health Sciences Centre and provided breastfeeding and after-birth care and education to new moms, and helped with postpartum care.
Manitoba Nurses Union president Sandi Mowat said the cuts to the centre and the lactation consultants were shocking, because there was no consultation before the announcement.
“We spoke out against it, but unfortunately the government didn’t listen to our concerns,” she said. “There seems to be a lack of understanding about the importance of reproductive health, postpartum care and other health concerns that uniquely affect women.”
Those are the specific programs for women. But for women, it’s more than that.
Women are more likely to be employed by the health-care system. So when there is a retrenchment of the system, it’s women’s jobs on the block.
According to the Manitoba Nurses Union, 90 per cent of nurses are women, and 52 of the 57 laid off were women.
And then there are the hidden workers — the ones who are busy behind the scenes in the kitchen or washing the linens in hospitals, delivering the food trays or doing the front-line clerical work.
According to media reports, more than 100 health-care aide workers faced potential layoff notices last month in hospitals across the city.
Although it’s not immediately clear whether all workers receiving layoff notices will be offered other jobs within the health-care system, most of these are likely to be women — and most of them are likely to be racialized women.
They aren’t making the big paycheques. In fact, the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, one of the unions which represents them, said the maximum hourly rate for health-care support service workers is $20 an hour.
As well, women are more likely than men to be hospitalized because they give birth.
And since they live longer than men, they also tend to require personal care in hospitals later in life, as well. Any changes made to care in hospitals has a disproportionate effect on women’s lives.
Because women are most often tasked with providing care in the private or domestic sphere, when the public sphere no longer provides services, it’s expected those services will then be picked up by the private sector.
In other words, as a woman, if your daughter has had a baby and health-care staff is limited or support services have been eliminated, you are expected to step up and help out.
And if your mother is in a personal care home and there are no longer staffing services provided at the same level as in years previous, you are also expected to pick up the slack. The WRHA has announced a small cut to funding to personal-care homes across the city. It will be interesting to see how that will affect women’s lives in the coming year.
Let’s face it: women bear the burden of provincial austerity programs in more ways than one.
MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky said it’s important to take notice of how government-driven cuts are affecting the lives of women and their families.
“These professions have been targeted by the government, (which) has made reckless cuts based on finding cost savings rather than focusing on patient care and better outcomes,” she said. “So when the government talks about closing ERs and introducing private home care, it’s working women that are primarily dealing with the uncertainly.”
Right now, Premier Brian Pallister is a long way from former premier Gary Filmon’s record of laying off 1,137 nurses (of which 565 were eventually rehired).
And so far, Pallister has remained true to his promise not to lay off teachers, another occupation dominated by women.
But this government needs to keep in mind that women and men should have an equal share in the effects of a provincial austerity program. Why should women be first in the firing line of budget cuts?
Shannon Sampert is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Winnipeg.
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